The cause was a heart attack, said a son, Ryan Cole.
Dr. Cole, who retired from Indiana University as a distinguished professor emeritus of fine arts and professor emeritus of comparative literature, became chairman in December 2001 — less than three months after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. He said he saw his role as NEH leader as an element in the newly declared war on terrorism.
"Defending our homeland requires not only successful military campaigns," he told Humanities magazine in 2002. "It also depends on citizens understanding their history, their institutions, and their ideals. The humanities show us what it means to be an American, and why America's ideals are worth fighting for."
He added: "I see works of art as primary documents of a civilization. The written document tells you one thing, but a painting or a sculpture or a building tells you something else. They are both primary documents, but they tell you things in different ways."
Dr. Cole, a former art history professor at Indiana University, was the longest-serving chairman of the NEH since its founding in 1965. He stepped down in January 2009. Its current annual budget is $150 million, up from $124 million at the start of his tenure.
Under his leadership, the NEH worked to broaden its traditional role as a provider of grants to artists and art projects. It re-energized its public outreach, promoting programs to reinvigorate the teaching of humanities, especially history and culture, in American public schools.
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There were workshops for teachers and a distribution of American-themed books to public libraries. There was a program called "Picturing America," in which 36,000 reproductions of American artworks were distributed to Head Start centers, schools and public libraries.
That project was Dr. Cole's personal favorite. "By using masterpieces of American art, we are teaching in a more direct way with images," he told The Washington Post shortly before leaving the NEH. "We are introducing people to art and the great gift that art can give them."
Bruce Milan Cole, whose father was a salesman, was born in Cleveland on Aug. 2, 1938. He had been to that city's art museum with his aunt, but a transformational moment in his life occurred as a freshman at what then was Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In a Western-civilization book, he found himself mesmerized by Sassetta's Italian Renaissance painting "The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul."
"It was an epiphany," he told The Post. It sparked an interest in Italian Renaissance history and later, more specifically, in Florentine history and art.
He graduated in 1962 and received a master's degree from Oberlin College in 1964 and a doctorate from Bryn Mawr College in 1969, both in art history.
In his youth, he was a motorcycle enthusiast, an activity he returned to later in life. Asked by Humanities magazine if he rode without a helmet, he said: "No, given the way that I drive the motorcycle, a helmet is advisable." By the time he came to Washington, his motorcycle had been "gathering dust" in his garage, he said.
In 1966, Dr. Cole was a graduate student in Florence when the rain-swelled Arno River flooded the city. He participated with a corps of "Mud Angels" in helping protect the vast collection of priceless Renaissance artworks in the city.
He taught art history at the University of Rochester from 1969 to 1973, then at Indiana University until he became NEH chairman. In 2008, Bush awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the country's highest civilian honors, for having "inspired Americans to have a deeper commitment to the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture."
In 1962, he married Doreen Luff. Besides his wife, of Fairfax County, Va., survivors include two children, Ryan Cole of Bloomington, Ind., and Stephanie Whittaker of Chantilly, Va.; and two grandchildren.
After leaving the NEH, Dr. Cole was president and chief executive of the American Revolution Center in Valley Forge, Pa., until 2011. He served on the board of trustees of Indiana University and was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
Shortly before he left the NEH, Dr. Cole gave an extended interview to Humanities magazine in which he talked about the current concept of "the artist as a loner, a bohemian, somebody who lives in a garret, devotes his life to art."
"Art was a trade," he continued. "Artists had shops, just like the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, and the art trade was really indistinguishable from other trades. Most people got into these shops not because they showed talent, but because they were related to somebody, or it was their father's or their brother's or their uncle's shop."
"People of the Renaissance," he concluded, "had this idea that artists are made, not born. We have the opposite idea."